Board of Commissioners meet at Champoeg, hosts historians to celebrate 175 years since founding vote

COURTESY PHOTO: JOLENE KELLEY - County Commissioners Kevin Cameron, Sam Brentano and Janet Carlson stand with Historian david Lewis, historical interpreter Michael Tieman, and Greg Leo from the Friends of Historical Butteville in front of a painting depicting Oregon's founding vote.The Marion County Board of Commissioners met at Champoeg State Park May 2 to honor the 175th anniversary of the founding of the first Oregon provisional government.

The board invited several guests to give presentations on the history of the anniversary: Champoeg Park Manager John Mullen, Native American historian David Lewis, Greg Leo from the Friends of Historic Butteville and historical interpreter Michael Tieman from the Oregon Society, Sons of the American Revolution, who was in costume as Gen. Francis Marion.

On May 2, 1843, a group of American and French-Canadian settlers gathered on a bluff at Champoeg overlooking the Willamette River and voted with a 52 to 50 majority to create the Oregon Country and join the United States. Oregon was divided into four districts — Tuality, Yamhill, Clackamas and Champoick — the last of which was later renamed Marion County after Revolutionary War general Francis Marion.

Leo described how the American and Canadian settlers had gathered to provide a pressing need of the area's farmers and ranchers, trapping and killing wolves, cougars and bears that were attacking livestock.

The settlers had a larger motive for the meeting, Leo said. A cattle rancher from California, Ewing Young, had recently died, and the settlers needed a way to divide up his property.

"They decided a legislature was good. … It was a split decision between 50 French-Canadians who did not want to organize, 50 Americans who did want to organize, and two very important people who crossed over," he said.

Canadians Francis Xavier Mathieu and Etienne Lucier voted with the Americans because they wanted a representative government and no longer wanted to be under British rule, Leo said. The creation of a local government then echoes the purpose of local government today: to serve the community and protect people and private property, Leo said.

Lewis spoke about the history of the Kalapuya Native Americans who made the area home for 10,000 years or more.

"That means something like 400 generations of people learned to live in this place; this is their land," Lewis said.

The Kalapuya had villages up and down the Willamette River, including at Champoeg, Chemeketa, Chehalem and Chemawa, with around 25,000 inhabitants, he said. White settlers were unaware of the periodic snowmelt floods and built the historical town of Champoeg alongside the river. In November 1861 the town was inundated by a flood after a major storm, and while no one was killed, Champoeg was destroyed.

"They were probably laughing when the Americans came here and built their towns right on the river," Lewis said.

The Kalapuyas welcomed French settlers and married into settler families, Lewis said.

However, from the 1830s to 1840s, up to 95 percent of the Kalapuyas were killed by diseases brought by the settlers which they had no immunity against.

The Kalapuya tribes were eventually forced out and relocated to the Grand Ronde Reservation with other tribes from Washington, Oregon and Northern California in 1856 by the U.S. government.

The people of the Grand Ronde community now represent a mix of many different tribal heritages, and Lewis himself is of Santiam, Takelma and Chinook ancestry.

"Now we are trying to do what we can to care for the land again, like we have for 10,000 years," Lewis said. "This is our place, our people are buried here. … Literally the soil of the land is parts of our people."

Patrick Evans



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